Natalie Portman’s recent commencement speech at Harvard is worth watching. The youtube link is embedded below and I’ll let you form your own views and thoughts before sharing my own.

Growing up in Asia, I was led to believe there was only a single universally accepted image of success. It looked something like this:

  • Excel academically in high school
  • Gain admission to a ‘prestigious’ university and graduate with honours in preferably medicine or law (in that order).
  • Start out as a doctor/lawyer/banker at a ‘prestigious’ institution
  • Climb the ranks of said institution and earn enough to fund a lifestyle befitting of such a vision of success while raising a family and starting your children on the same pathway.

It’s easy to see why so many (myself included) subscribe to this view – it’s the most convenient proxy or benchmark for how successful one is. What Natalie Portman reminds us though is that blind use of such benchmarks may consciously or subconsciously shape our behaviour and decisions in ways we may come to regret later.

After watching her speech, I spent some time thinking about what my own benchmark might look like. Having recently sat the CFA exam I had to initially fight inner nerd temptations to construct one based on the “SAMURAI” criteria but once said nerd temptations were subdued I came to realise that I would first need to identify what was important to me and what I wanted to achieve over the short, medium and long term. That then reminded me of another commencement speech:

The key things from Conan O’Brien’s speech that resonated with me were that:

  • One’s dream is constantly evolving, rising and falling, changing course.
  • Whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that’s okay.

This idea of one’s dream being a dynamic concept has certainly been true for me. With each stage of life, with each new environment, and on a more incremental basis through my daily interactions with others, my “perceived ideal” has changed over time.

In light of this, one might ask why bother setting and pursuing goals at all if they are bound to change? The answer lies in the old adage about the the journey being more important than the destination. In Conan O’Brien’s words:

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.”

The existence of a perceived ideal, coupled with the motivation to realise it, drives the development of skills, knowledge and experience that continue to hold value even after one’s goals change. Again Conan O’Brien illustrates this perfectly though the example of Johnny Carson:

“Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny…but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation.”

Tying all this back to the original purpose – redefining benchmarks to suit personal goals rather than societal norms, I have come to the following conclusion:

  • Goal: As part of furthering a broad and full life experience – actively pursue a move to a country other than the UK and Australia or a change in job industry.
  • Benchmark: speak 1 new language, develop 1 new job-related skill and 1 new non job-related skill by January 2017.

Will let you know how I go!


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